Ten questions with ‘Gray Lady Down’ author William McGowan

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William McGowan is the author of “Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of the New York Times Means For America.”

Formerly editor of the Washington Monthly, McGowan is a media fellow at Social Philosophy and Policy Center. His work has been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times Magazine, the New Republic, and the National Review, among other places. His last book, “Coloring the News: How Political Correctness Has Corrupted American Journalism,” won the National Press Club Award.

McGowan recently agreed to answer 10 questions from The Daily Caller about his new book:

1.  Why did you decide to write the book?

Journalism is one of America’s more important democratic institutions. For better or worse, the Times is still central to our policy debates, our national conversation and whatever common culture we have left. It once represented the gold standard of American journalism. So I was curious what had happened, how bad the tarnish was and what policies and personalities were most responsible.

2.  What has the fall of the New York Times meant for America, if anything?

The Times is the Harvard of news. It is at the top of the journalistic food chain and what it says is news sets the agenda for much of the rest of the press. That might be changing somewhat, but it’s still important. The problem is that the Times has seen a lessening in its commitment to agnostic, professionally detached and neutral reporting in favor of advancing its political values in a way very correctly characterized, in many cases, as “cheerleading.” Yet this kind of p.c. boosterism doesn’t always work, as the many unintended consequences of the Times reporting and commentary have shown. In fact, it often generates a backlash. Most recently, the paper’s antagonism and mischaracterizations of the Tea Party movement contributed to the midterm “shellacking” of the Democratic Party. If it can be said, as I did in a piece for Real Clear Politics, that the Obama administration outsourced  health-care reform to an out-of-touch Congress, it could also be said that it outsourced its broader public relations effort to the Times, as well as MSNBC and Comedy Central — the Don Drapers of the Democratic Party, if you will.

3.  Is there an individual or a group of individuals who deserve the lion’s share of the blame for the decline of the New York Times?

I think the current publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who has been in control now for almost 20 years bears the most responsibility. Granted, in the last few years, he and other news executives, at the Times and in the news industry at large, have been dealt a bad hand with loss of revenues from the competition of the Internet. But Sulzberger has played that hand quite badly, allowing ideology to subtract from the paper’s credibility and gravitas. And unfortunately, the rot at the top is not going away short of a change of leadership. Yes, the Times has made efforts at reform, especially since the Blair scandal and other institutional embarrassments. But like a recovering addict who pledges sobriety, they’ve fallen off the wagon with too much regularity and its reform initiatives have had only spotty success.

4.  What are the greatest problems you see with the New York Times’ coverage of issues today? And is there a particular area where they are especially bad?

The Times has been particularly bad on race, immigration, the growth of Islam in America, gay rights (especially gay marriage), the War on Terror and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The common thread is a mentality defined by a kind of “punitive liberalism” which holds that America at its core is somehow morally tainted and needs to atone — to “reclaim its soul” as one of its op-ed columnists put it.

5.  When the New York Times revealed a secret government program used to track terrorists through cooperation with financial institutions, some called the revelation treasonous. What are your thoughts on that incident?

You are referring to the SWIFT banking surveillance program, which was perfectly legal, had completely adequate congressional oversight and was quite effective. I wouldn’t call it treasonous to have run that story. But I think it was gratuitous. They ran the story because they could, and engaged in a justification campaign in the wake of the following furor that was both juvenile and transparent.

Of greater concern to me is the unreflective coverage of the War on Terror in general and the Patriot Act in particular. The Times crusaded against the Patriot Act relentlessly and inaccurately. The Patriot Act was central to the breakup of dozens of  terror plots and the prosecutions of the plotters. Yet the Times dismissed it, ignoring available information that proved it had done much, much more than round up, as one editorial put it, a motley crew of “hapless innocents.”

6.  Was there a golden age of the Times? If so, when?

When Abe Rosenthal was at its editorial head, the Gray Lady was in her best form. For Rosenthal, keeping the paper “straight” was the highest priority and he did so by making sure that reporters and critics kept their subjective political opinions to themselves in favor of a form of journalistic agnosticism free of cant and what he called “editorial needles.” Some thought him conservative. But Joseph Lelyveld said, Rosenthal believed you had to keep a firm “right” hand on the tiller, else the newsroom, left to its own inclinations, would drift to the left.

7.  Do you read the Times anymore? Where do you get your information on a daily basis?

I read the Times every day, though I read it differently than I used to, as through a filter that identifies its ideological biases and corrects for them. I also read the Wall Street Journal, the New York tabloids and a variety of websites, such as opinionjournal.com, National Review Online, Real Clear Politics, Timeswatch, Romenesko, Kausfiles, the BBC, NPR and others. As far as magazines, it’s the New Yorker, the Weekly Standard and the Atlantic.

8.  What do you think is the most significant revelation in your book?

I don’t think there’s any single “revelation” that would make “news” per se. But there are important insights. Among them are:

  • Policies and personnel decisions made by publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. are most responsible for the Times travails and its loss of gravitas.
  • The Times continues to get hoaxed, conned, defrauded and manipulated by people using the paper to perpetrate a scam or propagandize. Credulous and naive reporters, besotted by the culture of victimology and political correctness prove ready accomplices.
  • The Time is especially “soft” on Islam in America and the subject of Islamist terrorism. It is all-too-ready to make accusations of “Islamaphobia” in the tools used to conduct the War on Terror and all-too-resistant to report on aspects of Islamic culture at odds with progressive American norms, especially those involving women.
  • The Times refracted much of its reporting on the wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan through the dark, defeatist prism of Vietnam. Although the Bush administration made plenty of military, diplomatic and political mistakes, the Times reporting and commentary has been riddled with mistakes too, leading many to call its basic patriotism into question.
  • Despite efforts to reform its institutional culture to be more open , self-critical and accountable, those reform efforts have not succeeded. Attempts to expand the ideological diversity in the news and editorial sections have been limited, at best. And ideological bias continues to plague the paper, both in its hard news reporting, its reporting on increasingly vapid “soft news” subjects and in its editorializing.

It’s worth remembering that Bill Buckley’s National Review — the bane of many a liberal — wrote of Rosenthal’s Gray Lady that if the rest of the media followed her journalistic example, the nation would be “far better informed and more honorably served.” I wrote the book because this equitable 1972 assessment was no longer true — and when cheerleading replaces journalism at the most important news organization in the country, our experiment in self-government suffers.

9.  Do you think it would be better for newspapers to openly admit their political biases, like they do in the U.K.?

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that objectivity and detached neutral professionalism are still important, even if we fall short of achieving them. If news organizations here adopt the same open politicization practiced in Europe, I think our national conversation would grow even coarser and more polarized. The virtue of someone like Rosenthal was that he demanded that his reporters and editors be on guard against their own prejudices and have a commitment to telling the truth, now matter where the chips fell and no matter how difficult those truths were to swallow.

10.  Any plans to write another book? About what?

I have a couple of ideas. One is a memoir about some of my experiences in South Asia where I lived and worked for a number of years. Another is about trying to find the lost soul of “community” in America, as told through my hometown, where my family moved in 1959. I’ve got the proverbial novel “in the drawer” which is about cultural terrorism in downtown Manhattan. And I’ve got the inside track on a little-known case of gay extortion from the 1950s and 1960s — very noir, very “L.A. Confidential.” Would I write another media book? After having written two — “Coloring The News” and “Gray Lady Down” — I’m inclined to think long and hard. But never say never.

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